Learning Strategies: Techniques to Make Learning More Effective

This is the eighth article in a series of articles by CCCEP about the value of high-quality continuing education for pharmacy professionals, the difference it can make to their practice and careers, and the role accreditation can play in ensuring the quality of continuing education.

This article continues the discussion of the importance of understanding the learning process — encoding, consolidation, and retrieval — to improve learning. It highlights four complementary learning strategies to help pharmacy professionals improve their learning outcomes from engaging in continuing education.

Learning Strategy 1: Distributed Learning

Mastering a topic requires giving one’s brain time to process and integrate their learning through [cognitive] breaks like sleep.1 Spacing out the study or practice sessions over a longer period of time is referred to as distributed learning2, as opposed to condensing them into single intensive sessions, also known as “massed practice” or “cramming”. During massed practice, a learner works with information repeatedly in their short-term memory, but for [effective] learning, working with long-term memory is critical.3 Furthermore, the brain gets bored during massed practice3, leading to ineffective use of time.

Learning Strategy 2: Retrieval Practice

Retrieval means attempting to recall previously learned information instead of just reviewing or rereading the information. Retrieval practice involves the transfer of information between short- and long-term memory, which enhances comprehension and recall.4 Retrieval attempts such as ​​using one’s own spoken or written words in complete sentences5 forces a learner to search their long-term memory to explain the information. Such attempts also highlight gaps in understanding while strengthening and updating the recalled information.

Learning Strategy 3: Interleaving

Interleaving focuses on how study or practice time is utilized. It involves blending related but distinct materials while studying.3 To simplify the meaning, here’s an example: Instead of practicing 10 addition problems, then 10 subtraction, 10 multiplication, and 10 division problems in a sequence, it is better to mix these problems and then solve them. Similarly, instead of practicing taking 10 medication histories, then 10 medication reconciliations, 10 drug therapy problem identifications, and 10 drug therapy problem resolutions in a sequence, it is better to combine these into several patient case scenarios and then solve them. Such an approach better reflects real-life situations, which don’t always occur in a predictable sequence. Hence, while practicing the same knowledge and skill several times is important to get a firm understanding of them, interleaving helps learners recognize “when” and “how” to use them in various and unexpected situations.6,7

Learning Strategy 4: Elaboration

Doyle and Zakrajsek1 refers to elaboration as the “process of creating multiple paths to information”1(p52), e.g., listening, talking, reading, writing, reviewing, or reflecting about the information or skill. Varying how, where, and/or when learners revisit information and skills allows them to associate their learning with various contextual and multisensory cues. It creates stronger connections in the learner’s brain resulting in new learning becoming a more permanent memory. Creating pictures or images1 and using one’s own words and ideas to reiterate the learned information, i.e., paraphrasing5,8, are also effective elaboration approaches.


Each learning strategy above presents unique, complementary benefits to improve learning. Pharmacy professionals should consider implementing these strategies into their continuing education planning to make the most out of the continuing education they pursue. Implementing such strategies might require more work at first, but they can assist pharmacy professionals in the long-term mastery of acquired knowledge and skills, thereby allowing them to provide better patient care and meet their professional goals.


  1. Doyle T, Zakrajsek T. The New Science of Learning: How to learn in harmony with your brain. 1st ed. Stylus Publishing; 2013.
  2. Benjamin AS, Tullis J. What makes distributed practice effective? Cognitive Psychology. 2010;61(3):228–47. doi.org/10.1016/j.cogpsych.2010.05.004
  3. Carey B. How we learn: The surprising truth about when, where, and why it happens. Random House; 2014.
  4. Van Hoof T, Doyle T. Learning science as a potential new source of understanding and improvement for continuing education and continuing professional development. Medical Teacher. 2018;40(9):880–5. doi:10.1080/0142159x.2018.1425546
  5. Leamnson R. Thinking about teaching and learning: Developing habits of learning with first year college and university students. Stylus Publishing; 1999.
  6. Carpenter SK, Cepeda NJ, Rohrer D, Kang SH, Pashler H. Using spacing to enhance diverse forms of learning: Review of recent research and implications for instruction. Educational Psychology Review. 2012;24(3):369–78. doi.org/10.1007/s10648-012-9205-z
  7. Oakley B. A mind for numbers: how to excel at math and science (even if you flunked algebra). 1st ed. The Penguin Group; 2014.
  8. Brown P, Roediger III H, McDaniel M. Make it Stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge: Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press; 2014.